Friday, August 4, 2017

Arguments about existence

I haven't been posting here lately, even to the extent of linking to articles of mine which are being published at The Electric Agora. My most recent article at the EA was a response to some claims that Daniel Kaufman had been making about the existence of things like selves and agreements. He was making more of the "existence" of these things than I would, and was attempting to set up what I see as a false dichotomy between the physical sciences on the one hand and the social sciences and humanities on the other. He doesn't believe that evolutionary biology or neuropsychology, for example, have a lot to tell us about social reality.

As is usual at the site, there was quite a good discussion in the comments section. But whether this discussion goes any further will probably depend on whether Dan continues to publish pieces on this particular question. He may do, as he indicated that he was planning to write a book on the subject.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Brutal reality?

[Recently posted to my Google+ collection Language, Logic, Life.]

Dan Kaufman recently got a bit of flak (even from his wife apparently) for his energetic critique of the new – or continuing – 'cult of the self'.

"... [T]he old Cult of the Self [the reference here is to the 1970s and '80s and such movements as Werner Erhard's 'est' program] actually may have been slightly less loathsome than its newer, smarmier versions, insofar as it was at least honest, albeit in a brutal, tone-deaf sort of way."

He is saying that the older movements did not really disguise their egoistic nature whereas more recent iterations – while still basically egoistic – present themselves as being driven by humane motives.

"... [T]oday’s Cult of the Self represents itself as being socially oriented, and with social media having trained us to accept the thinnest, most indirect, heavily mediated interactions as constituting real relationships, it’s easy to convince ourselves that seeing others entirely through the lens of our own well-being and virtue constitutes genuine connection and concern, rather than self-absorption masquerading as such.  Gone is the idea that our deepest relationships with and obligations to others are properly self-effacing, and in its place is the notion that the main thing to think about, with respect to other people and what they deserve, is how the way I treat them reflects upon me."


I commented (in part) as follows:

"My default position is that something like that "brutal" position is probably 'true' in the sense that it correlates well with reality. But this could be seen as a dangerous idea. It seems to me there is a key divide here on how people see the world (and themselves). I don't know, however, that I would want to push this idea too much: social consequences may not be good. There is no reason to think that just because something is true, it is something one should talk about. I've never liked the 'noble lie' idea, but reticence is slightly different from this. Reticence – like lying, actually – is ... something I am not particularly good at, however."

I also suggested in the comment that Max Stirner's radical egoism – which Leszek Kolakowski saw as prefiguring fascism – was an important precursor to the movements Dan Kaufman was attacking.

In due course I will try to expand on these somewhat cryptic remarks. It could form the basis for a new Electric Agora article (or articles). But let me here and now try to put the core idea more directly.

I am suggesting that the standard way of seeing things involves a lot of self-deception and (to use a loaded term which may or may not be appropriate here) hypocrisy.

Fundamentally the social world works just like the natural world described by biologists. Evolutionary processes are not pretty. Having language and culture adds complexity and richness and gives us freedoms and possibilities which other animals do not have. But it does not allow us to escape this world of deception, manipulation and struggle. A basic kind of ethics and very basic notions of rights and responsibilities make sense: as individuals we survive longer and prosper when we cooperate. But a Christian or socialist-style ethic – based on a kind of generalized altruism (or generosity) mixed with self-denial and deemed to be in some sense obligatory – is problematic, both in terms of its consequences for those individuals (very few, it must be said) who sincerely and seriously try to implement such an ethic in their lives, and in terms of rational motivation.

Still a bit cryptic perhaps. But it is an attempt at least to clarify (in my own mind as well as in a more public sense) the supposedly "dangerous" idea I was talking about not talking about!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The trivial isn't necessarily trivial

[Recently posted to my Google+ collection, Language, Logic, Life.]  At one point in John le CarrĂ©'s early classic, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Alec Leamas, a British secret service agent, is staying on the Dutch coast, waiting for an important and fateful meeting. His thoughts turn to a woman who had looked after him when he had became ill in a rented room in London. Liz had been a member of the Communist Party in Britain and so technically opposed to Leamas's cause.

"... At about eleven o'clock the next morning [Leamas] decided to go out for a walk along the front, bought some cigarettes and stared dully at the sea.

"There was a girl standing on the beach throwing bread to the seagulls. Her back was turned to him. The sea wind played with her long black hair and pulled at her coat, making an arc of her body, like a bow strung towards the sea. He knew then what it was that Liz had given him; the thing that he would have to go back and find if ever he got home to England: it was the caring about little things – the faith in ordinary life; the simplicity that made you break up a bit of bread into a paper bag, walk down to the beach and throw it to the gulls. It was this respect for triviality which he had never been allowed to possess; whether it was bread for the seagulls or love, whatever it was he would go back and find it ..."

Le Carré seems to be suggesting that the real meaning of life is not to be found in causes and grand designs but in the mundane, apparently pointless details of ordinary life. It is very tempting to go along with this line of thinking.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

On reasonableness

Most people don't like being told what they should do or how they should think. Moralizing, in particular, gets under people's skin.

In a recent piece at The Electric Agora, Daniel Kaufman makes the very plausible point that overuse of terms like 'should', far from encouraging people to act in a certain way, often only encourages them to 'hunker down' or become defiant.

But his claim about people losing respect for "reasonableness itself" is not so plausible, I think.

He wrote:

"Just as stupid, petty, and unenforceable laws cause the public to lose respect for law generally, and just as – I think – the wild overuse of ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’ and their cognates has eroded respect for morality, the proliferation of weak, groundless, often self-serving “shoulds,” whether of the moral variety or otherwise, may cause people to lose respect for reasonableness itself.”

Would it not rather be the case that respect would be lost for the person – and by extension the category of person – doing the ‘shoulding’?

I don’t think reasonableness is at risk at all. Reasonableness is and will remain widely respected. It has power and force and always will.

You could say, I suppose, that it is not reasonableness but the appearance of reasonableness that counts. Calm and cool wins arguments. Even Donald Trump strives to appear reasonable at times.

But the thing is, it’s hard to separate reasonableness from the appearance of reasonableness, because reasonableness is not just about reason but also about manners and behaviour.

And if you are giving a good enough impression of reasonableness then you are – for all intents and purposes – being reasonable.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Language and thought

Some people believe that all thoughts and concepts are language-based; others see language as playing a less crucial (or central or primary) role. This issue came up during a discussion of my recent essay at The Electric Agora on Wittgenstein's (mainly non-verbal) antics, though the essay itself was not concerned with this particular question. There are a lot of potential confusions here, a few of which I will try to disentangle as I put my point of view.

How one answers this question depends on how one frames it and what exactly one means by 'thoughts' and 'concepts' (specifically, how broadly or narrowly one defines them). But it also depends on what we mean by language. Are we talking about natural language, that is, human languages as they are in all their complexity? Or are we talking about language in a looser, more general sense?

Wittgenstein, for example, talked about an imagined primitive language that a tribe of builders might use. Clearly he is not concerned directly with actual human languages here (i.e. natural language, as the term is usually understood) but rather with the basis of the meaningfulness of language in general, of any possible language. Whatever he talking about, it is certainly not the complex thing (or set of systems or suite of behaviours) which is normally called natural language and which our brains are specifically primed to acquire. Or, if he is talking about it, it is in very oblique terms: telling a story about an imagined simplified language to demonstrate something about how these actual complex languages came to – or can – have semantic content.

If you wanted to understand how language gets meaning surely you would want to look closely at how children acquire language. Speculations about how language itself developed are something else again. But whatever Wittgenstein is doing, he is not doing science and he is not suggesting an hypothesis about anything.

His general point seems to be that language is a social thing and that meaning arises through social interaction. But who is disputing this? (The main target of Wittgenstein's criticism seems to be certain philosophical ways of thinking, and to some extent his earlier self.)

He is not using the term 'language' in its usual sense to refer to natural language (i.e. to existing human languages). But if – unlike Wittgenstein – you are using the word 'language' in this way, then the idea that all thought and concepts are language-based is very implausible.

As I wrote in a comment...

"The brain’s language modules (contentious term but I am just using it to mean “brain systems involved directly in linguistic processing”) interact with other modules, and constitute only a part of the total cerebral activity which is associated with conscious experience. It seems a bit forced to characterize the multiple and various conscious experiences not associated with linguistic processing as ‘not-thought’.

"[One commenter] talks about “thoughts of a significant kind” [as being language-based]. This needs further unpacking, but at least the qualification is there."

Having language makes us special, that's for sure.

My comment continued:

"... [T]he capacity for complex language changes the nature of ‘thinking’ in radical ways. This relates to the capacity for abstraction. I see a link between natural language and artificial languages (like mathematics). Certain non-linguistic animals can count and maybe subtract in an intuitive kind of way, and may enact certain processes which could be represented in terms of formal logic. But building and using explicit abstract systems can only be done by humans, and I think these formal systems are modelled to a large extent on natural language. Even ordinary natural language involves a high degree of abstraction. It is a big deal and a game-changer.

"I think some philosophers have erred, however, in pushing what I see as an extreme line on the question of language and thought. I am thinking in particular of the views of a couple of my teachers. As an eighteen-year-old undergraduate I was given what I now believe was a false perspective on language and thought in philosophy lectures and tutorials. It took me years to work my way out of it.

"I don’t think I entirely agree with Brendan Larvor’s criticisms of philosophical practice. [Larvor is an academic philosopher working in the U.K. who was cited in my essay and who finds fault with the argumentive practices of philosophers, seeing them as designed primarily to silence opposing voices.] I was not so much bullied as persuaded. But there was a definite sense of cultishness; an unspoken understanding that “We have this special [curiously ineffable] insight which is denied to others.”"

And you'd have to say, I think, that much of this cultishness drew – and continues to draw – on Wittgenstein's later work, including his discussion of imaginary 'languages' and use of the (arguably ill-defined) concepts 'language games' and 'forms of life'.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Philosophical performance

Whether we like it or not – and whether we like to admit it or not – we all too often find ourselves on a communicational battlefield where the performance of bewilderment, contempt and nausea combine with other forms of shaming and ostracism to play a major role in determining who prevails.

My latest piece at The Electric Agora, Wittgenstein's Antics, is about some of the non-verbal methods which people use to promote themselves and their ideas and get their way. The focus is on philosophical head-clutching and similar antics which not just Ludwig Wittgenstein but many other philosophers have been prone to. [That's Karl Popper in the photograph.] The topic is amusing, sure, but serious questions can be asked about the causes, the functions and the consequences of these general patterns of behaviour.

And, by the way, an interesting discussion developed in the latter part of the comment thread on the extent to which thought is necessarily language-based.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Feel free to breathe

[Latest post in my Google+ Collection, Language, Logic, Life.]

Feel free to walk, however, and breathe. (No wonder the sign attracts graffiti.)

Also, the word 'refrain' has a slightly quaint or archaic air. I heard it – usually accompanied by 'please', as here, or by a sarcastic 'kindly' – a lot in my childhood. Even then it sounded a bit old-fashioned.